ZERO-WASTE-EXPERT SOPHIA HOFFMANN: FOOD AND PEOPLE BOTH DESERVE APPRECIATION
Sophia Hoffmann has been working in gastronomy since a very young age. Originating from a side job during school, emerged a career, that very few women follow but she has hammered out a name in the field: Sophia has soared high within a male-dominated culinary world as a Zero-Waste chef. In this interview she speaks to us about equal rights, harassment, diversity and zero waste.
Where is the origin point of your career as a chef, how did you get here?
I have worked in gastronomie since I was 17 years-old, in those times as a side job or seasonal jobs. My first real kitchen experience was as a pizza baker, but even as a kid I was really into reading cookbooks, playing “restaurant” including designing the menu. In my 20’s I did a lot of other things, I was a DJ for ten years, a singer and freelance journalist but I always had side jobs cooking. In my early 30’s I decided to focus on what really made me happy. At that time I was a vegetarian with vegan tendencies so a classical education was not realistic. In the end I just dived into the kitchens, worked my way up and worked hard.
In your book “Vegan Queens” you put women in gastronomie in focus: In your view, why are there so few women chefs, bakers etc.?
It has mostly to do with a structural problem, one which highly favors a hierarchy that is sexist towards women and other genders. A lot of women, including myself, have a negative impression to the classical style and we tread our own path now. All women that I know that have gone through apprenticeships have been either verbally or physically harassed, and the statistics point to around 100 percent. Luckily we see a lot (including male) restaurateurs striving for a paradigm shift, and newcomers like myself often bring a fresh wind and the “Vegan Queens” is the best example: The theme of vegetarian-vegan cuisine is still very feminine and there is an inordinate amount of female caterers in this sector, which inspired me to introduce and showcase these women in my book.
The topic of visibility is also a major point: There are large numbers of women in professional kitchens but the conventional culinary rating system is elitist: Fine dining and Michelin-stars are considered as the only things that matter, when in fact the culinary world is so much more diverse.
Could you give us a good example of this?
Many women that I know offer amazing catering services because it’s often more compatible with a family than working in a restaurant. However, they would never get the same exposure or attention. Thankfully that is also slowly changing with programs such as “Chef’s Table” and other media that are starting to open the horizon up a bit. People who talk about equal rights also need to focus on diversity, not just women, but people of color are also massively underrepresented in the upscale, visible kitchen culture. The superstars in the scene are for the most white, male and and very often privileged.
Your new book “Zero Waste Küche” has been on the market since February of 2019. The theme is currently a very hot topic. Which focus points does the book touch on?
Zero Waste is a philosophy that revolves around sustainability which has recently gained a lot of awareness world-wide and a following which grows everyday. It has a lot of different compartments: Waste prevention, anti-consumption, recycling, utilization, repair, second-stage recycling, circular economy and minimalism, just to name the most well-known points.
The Zero-Waste movement is a reaction to environmental pollution, climate change, resource depletion, over consumption, single use products and cheap manufacturing. In the context of food, the book focuses on the fullest potential usage but also components such as waste-free packaging, eco-balance and fairtrade. In my opinion, the path to get there rests on learning appreciation of the product, knowledge transfer, seasonality/ regionality and organic quality.
What were the reasons you committed yourself to the Zero-Waste cuisine? What was the push?
In Germany, 18 million tons of food end up in the trash every year, 40 percent of that coming from private households. This number is a huge waste of resources, leads to enormous amounts of pollution and is ethically not sustainable. During these times of climate crisis, we need to learn as consumers to be aware of how we are using our food resources.
My book is written for those at home, but definitely offers exciting approaches for restaurateurs who might not have a full picture of the situation. It’s also a type of reference with 40 food groups that are often wasted or have immensely lost their value, for example bread.
Wastage of food product is a very big theme. What solutions do you see from the point of view of chefs and restaurateurs?
I work in a company where Zero-Waste is part of the business philosophy (Isla Coffee Berlin). We buy pretty much exclusively organic quality from local producers and BECAUSE it costs more, we try to use every bit of the product. You can find countless examples of this on our menu starting with yoghurt, which we make from the milk leftover from foaming in the cafe, herb stems are pickled, onion skins are turned into seasoning powder and from stale bread the french toast for brunch. We reduce the food costs and elevate the labor costs, that is the simple calculation. Of course we are also pushing the limits of working space and manpower but we are trying to bring that to more tame levels.
I do think that the product usage theme is also the most attractive of all the themes. The Zero-Waste restaurant Silo in London from Douglas McMaster claims to have a 6 percent wastage!, in Matt Orlandos AMASS in Copenhagen it is 12 percent.
At the heart, it all comes down to valuing the product. We don’t see ugliy things, only possibilities. Everytime I hear that in some companies wine grapes are thrown away because they fell off the vine, I have to say: Apparently food is still too cheap. This is where we need a total re-think. It’s just crazy! The attitude of these big companies to process only perfect foods and throw the rest in the trash is purely unethical.
You stand for conscious consumption in the kitchen and in daily life. In supermarkets people can see the different regional and seasonal sources of food but not really in restaurants. What is your outlook on future development in this area?
I am an absolute champion of organic production and have also just completed further education as a specialist in organic gourmet nutrition at the IHK in Cologne. For my own restaurant (in the works) I would like an organic certification, which is still not a big theme in germany compared to scandanavian countries. Many restaurateurs are scared off by the extra costs of certification but I think that the seal is a great feature in terms of quality for the consumer and guest because more and more people are paying attention to things like that.
Local initiatives such as “Die Gemeinschaft (The community)”, initiated in Berlin by Nobelhart & Schmutzig, Horvath, engage in a more direct appraoch between producers and restaurateurs. This approach automatically leads to more seasonality and regionality while giving both sides more certainty of planning.
I also see the gastronomic responsibility of not jumping off bridges just because other people are jumping off bridges. We don’t do avocado toast or banana bread, and also no tomatoes in winter. However, our guests are more than happy with buckwheat porridge, apple tarts and home-made sauerkraut.
Thanks so much for the chat Sophia, and we wish you much success with your own place!